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Like Gold from Seawater: The peculiar successes of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry and Electrochemistry in the Weimar Era

Dr. Jeremiah James (Fritz-Haber-Institut der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Berlin)

For good reason, the Weimar Era has been referred to as the first “Golden Era” of the forerunner to the Fritz Haber Institute, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical and Electrochemistry. Institute Director, Fritz Haber, received the 1918 Nobel Prize for chemistry. An array of now famous scientists pursued research at the Institute, among them: Karl Friedrich Bonhoeffer, Henry Eyring, James Franck, Adalbert & Ladislaus Farkas, Herbert Freundlich, Paul Harteck, Hartmuth Kallmann, and Michael Polanyi. And the Institute itself earned a reputation, both in Germany and abroad, for supporting cutting-edge research in colloid chemistry, reaction kinetics, and gas chemistry. But the Weimar era was also a time of struggle for the Institute. Rapid wartime expansion followed by an unexpected peace, left it with a glut of personnel but no clear purpose. The subsequent financial turmoil undermined the Institute’s endowment and forced its reliance upon government grants, philanthropic foundations, and subsidized guest researchers. And even the myriad famous names associated with the Institute reflect, in part, the rapid changes in research group structure and turn-over in scientific personnel during the 1920s. That Haber and the division directors of the Institute were able, in spite of these conditions, not only to maintain fruitful lines of scientific research but also to advance the careers of numerous junior colleagues and to begin repairing the damage done to the Institute’s international reputation by the First World War, was an outcome no easier to envision than gold gleaned from seawater.

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